The man who looks out for Obama's soul

Every day for six years, Joshua Dubois has sent a devotional email to the President, and they have little to do with politics — review

7 December 2013

9:00 AM

7 December 2013

9:00 AM

Just in time for Advent, that season of preparation, of getting ready, of making sure we are in the right mind to weather the excitements of Christmas, the World Service gave us a short programme designed to get us in the mood. In Heart and Soul on Sunday, Jane Little talked to Joshua Dubois who since 2008 has been sending daily ‘devotional’ messages to President Obama.

Dubois began writing his emails during that first toughly fought election campaign. He was working for the Obama team in an outreach office, not close to the then senator but close enough to realise how tense and difficult the process of getting elected had become. He wondered whether in the midst of the crowd surrounding and supporting Obama there was anyone ‘thinking about his soul’, anyone helping him to cope with the pressure of the political attacks, the personal attacks, the full-on exposure to the media. He came up with the idea of sending him, first thing, before the business of the day got going, what he describes as an ‘encouraging email’ — a combination of Bible reading, poem or reflection and a short prayer. Dubois was not expecting to receive a response, but almost immediately his inbox pinged. ‘That’s exactly what I needed,’ the future president told him. ‘Would you do them every day?’

What was in that first message? A passage from the 23rd Psalm, and the words of a poem by Wendell Berry, ‘The peace of wild things’, which ends, ‘… For a time/ I rest in the grace of the world, and am free’. Why did it have such an impact on Obama? Dubois reckons it’s because he writes about things that are completely separate from the politics of the day and do not address ‘whatever conflict is at the top of the news cycle’. He uses texts from the Bible but also quotes from Thoreau, Nina Simone, George Bernard Shaw, Abraham Lincoln, Roosevelt, Bob Dylan, trying to find the right mood for the moment, but not reflecting directly what’s going on at the time.

Obama has been criticised for being the most secular of all American presidents and for rarely (unlike George W. Bush) being seen to go to church. He did pay a visit to the veteran Christian evangelist Billy Graham, pastor to many US presidents, but Graham has since distanced himself from the Obama administration. Dubois, though, is still sending his devotions to Obama’s personal inbox every morning. He’s been doing it now for six years, every morning, first thing. When he took a break one week, he received a call from the White House: ‘President Obama is wondering where his devotionals are?’ Until that moment, Dubois wasn’t sure whether he was being read each and every day.

If you missed this programme on Sunday, do catch up with it on iPlayer. There’s something inspiring about Dubois himself (much more so than just reading the printed words), especially when he reads from his own reflection, ‘Darkness will have its hour… The question becomes, do we have confidence in the coming light?’

Drama on 3 (also on Sunday) gave us one of those rare radio plays that takes hold of the mind and will not let go. In the Depths of Dead Love by Howard Barker (whose Scenes from an Execution began life on radio before it made it to the stage) is such an original conceit and so well crafted it draws you in, even if, at the beginning, you might wonder where on earth you are and where you might be going.

Richard E. Grant is Chin, an exiled Chinese poet in what you presume to be ancient times, who now lives in the back of beyond, gatekeeper to a well that is bottomless. Does this sound too weird to work? Do stay tuned. It’s worth persevering. Grant is brilliant as the wordy, fussy Chin, demanding his tea from the marvellously droll Mrs Hu (Jane Bertish) and worrying about the dark. Gradually, we discover that Mr Chin is watching over a route out of life — but only for those brave enough to take the leap. The Lady Hasi (played with magnificent hauteur by Francesca Annis) has been coming every day for some time but still has not had the courage, or sufficient desperation, to do the deed (‘For all her dithering there is something determined in her demeanour’). Then her husband (played by Michael Bertenshaw) arrives and asks Chin to help his wife on her way. ‘I am asking you to push her,’ he says at first. In just a few minutes, though, he becomes more demanding. ‘Shove her!’ he tells Chin, ‘Shove her!’

Forget the ending, which somehow drifts away from the writer, as if it, too, fell down the well. But relish the slickness of the wordplay and the vividness of the production (by Peter Kavanagh), so sharp on the ear yet so simple. The crackle of twigs burning, a slosh of tea, the creaking gate — with a wonderful solo cello (played by Errollyn Wallen) echoing in music the rhythm and tone of what’s just been said.

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  • simonzee1

    I’m not buying Obama’s spirituality. He can keep his weak and feeble theology which is built around the cult of personality and as he acknowledged the values of Hollywood. This guy is just a chameleon and an actor who is more comfortable with actors and lawyers than serious philosophical and theological thinkers. He is right referring to the example of the pope as having substance because Obama has as much integrity as a used car salesman which is flogging the Obamacare package on his sale. The catholic church should distance itself from Obama becuase this guy has no idea what constitutes social justice just state dependence. Obama is a player not a servant.